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At the recent G7 Summit, President Joe Biden availed himself of the opportunity to rally America’s ally nations around the mission of preserving and promoting democracy in the face of a rising tide of authoritarianism around the globe.
In his speech to joint session of Congress last April, he similarly emphasized the urgency of strengthening, even saving, our besieged and increasingly fragile democracy at home. He underlined how current conditions have made it necessary to once again legitimate the concept of democracy itself:
“We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and we can deliver for our people. In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in democracy to deliver.”
There’s no doubt that defending and expanding democratic rights are central to the Biden administration’s agenda.
One of Biden’s key advocacies for solidifying American democracy, however, tends to be marginalized if not overlooked in our political discourse around democracy, even by the Democratic Party, despite its pivotal place in ensuring we have a thoroughgoing democratic culture at all levels of social and political life.
I’m talking about the democratic rights of labor and the necessity of instituting workplace democracy if we in the U.S. are going to call our nation a democracy at all.
While the need to challenge voter suppression legislation and maintain free and fair elections at federal, state, and local levels rightly center the efforts of the Democratic Party and other progressive political organizations these days working to ensure the American people have a voice in the governance of their lives, the need to fight for workers’ voices in the workplace tends to fall by the wayside.
The vexed unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama receded into the shadows political conversation and certainly isn’t central to conversations about building back democracy in America. Amazon engaged in a host of dirty tricks and intimidation tactics, such as holding mandatory “captive audience” meetings for employees where they were warned about the dangers of unionization, threatening layoffs and closures should the workers vote to unionize, locating ballot boxes in employer-controlled areas, and more.
In short, Amazon workers did not enjoy the rights and conditions of a free and fair election, and this issue of democratic rights in the workplace needs to be equally central in discussions about and political advocacy for our fragile democracy.
Biden modeled this democratic advocacy when last March he voiced support for unions, encouraging workers at Amazon then currently involved in the vote to unionize or not to take part in this process. Doing so, Biden was really just standing up for democracy itself, highlighting that America has not yet achieved full democracy precisely because democratic rights have not extended to the workplace.
While he did not refer specifically to Amazon, the context of the vote in Alabama was clear, as was his figuration of the most basic democratic rights:
“Workers in Alabama – and all across America – are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”
He simply asked for a free and fair vote, while then also explaining how unions promote democracy:
“Unions put power in the hands of workers, they level the playing field, they give you a stronger voice, for your health, your safety, higher wages protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, but especially Black and Brown workers.”
And, the matter he made clear, is and should be up to the workers themselves without intimidation or coercion:
“So let me be really clear, it’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear, it’s not up to an employer to decide that either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers — full stop.”
He did, however, emphasize that U.S. law already asserted the importance of unions and collective bargaining to democracy:
“You should all remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say unions are allowed to exist. It said that we should encourage unions.”
Indeed, the law itself states in its preamble: “It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce … by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.”
A recent piece in The New York Times by Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise, and Grace Ashford, exposing working conditions in an Amazon warehouse, makes the lack of—and need for—workplace democracy quite clear. Workers’ every movements are minutely scrutinized, and they risk being fired for even one off day in which they don’t achieve maximum efficiency in their movements, generating an atmosphere of terror and anxiety. The piece emphasizes how Amazon takes great care of packages but devotes little care to its workers. Rooted in Jeff Bezos’ belief that people are inherently lazy, Amazon treats workers as disposable, churning through workers precisely because it does not want a stable, long-term workforce that might become “disgruntled” over time.
While Amazon defends itself in its treatment of workers, pointing to its higher-than-average wage, we need to not be distracted into confusing democratic rights with people’s having a decent wage that allows them to meet basic needs. These workers have no job security and really no rights in the Amazon empire. Amazon will happily pay higher wages to avoid giving up autocratic control over its workplace and extending any kind of power or voice to its workers.
On the whole, as a culture, we don’t speak much of the nation’s failure to extend democracy and civil rights to workers, tending to prioritize the rights of private property and capital: “If I own this land and factory, I can treat people how I want on it.”
This failure, this acceptance of autocracy in the workplace, is not just at odds with the nation’s democratic ideals, it is what enables and legitimates autocratic behavior in our politics and culture.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.